Tick, Tick, Tick: The Temporal Cost of Free-to-Play Gaming

Free-to-play game developers are playing a game of their own. The object of that game is to gain ownership of your time.

In the not too distant past, I have fallen victim to the free-to-play wiles of Zynga. They never got any of my money, but they owned me by owning my time.

My story is probably not an unfamiliar one to many Facebook users. Now, it did start with a Facebook account that was not my own. My wife decided to play a little game called Cityville, and after seeing her play around with the game, a very casual economic sim, I decided to “help out.”

Like many players of the -ville franchise (the most familiar of which being Farmville), it all started innocently enough. I watched my wife build a few buildings, plant a few fields, which would provide her the means to build more buildings, and saw how planting, harvesting and building were actions taken using energy. That energy was gained by waiting a sufficient time before it replenished after use, giving the player more “turns” as it were to get a few things done in this — “our” — tiny city. Of course, time is important in many ways in a game like Cityville. In addition to having to wait for energy to return so you can play more, build more, develop more, you also have to wait for buildings to be built, for crops to grow, and the like.

For the savvy player (and for those who truly have fallen prey to the damnable clock of the Zynga games, you know that I should replace the word “savvy” with “obsessed”), you begin recognizing that if you are smart and don’t want to “waste” energy that logging in at various increments during the day (maybe every hour, maybe every few hours) becomes the most efficient way of managing your little city the most efficiently. Soon you find yourself planning your day around logins to click, click, click on a virtual city, making the most of your energy and your crop rotations to create the most efficient little community possible.

This way lies madness.

It is a madness that most Americans find comfortably familiar, though. We are obsessed with tardiness, with appointments, with the increments that measure the significance of work – and even for most of us play.

It also speaks to the effectiveness of drawing a player into a persistent free-to-play game and keeping that player there. With the need to “be present” to harvest crops and complete building projects, alongside daily energy bonuses, the game makes “leaving” the game problematic. You find yourself constantly clinging to the need to get the most of your “free” play time at the expense of your real time. The game isn’t fun; it is something that you have to get done, an obligation, a duty.

Persistent world games have been present in the video game marketplace for decades now, though. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games were all about creating game worlds in which a player would develop not a city, but a character, over an extended period of time. Leveling the character up, improving a character’s equipment, these were the “duties” of an MMORPG player, but these were duties that didn’t hinge on rewards that were determined by the game’s clock. The game didn’t bait you with returning to the game by offering better equipment or higher levels or more effective experience or loot grinding by being present in game for some kind of daily bonus whose regularity was determined by clocks and timers. Sure, people got lost in these worlds, but the desire or need to grind was one merely encouraged by personal achievement, not a promise of more efficient gameplay or daily rewards that would pay off in time.

Indeed, the player quite literally bought into the system themselves, by choice. MMORPGs were originally subscription based gaming experiences. If you wanted to play Everquest, Asheron’s Call, or Everquest, you paid a monthly subscription to do so. That subscription was, perhaps, an encouragement to spend time in these worlds (after all, you wanted to get the most bang for your buck), but they also were encouragement enough to determine on your own how you spent your time on paid entertainment and how that fit into your schedule, not how the rest of your life fit into the schedule of Farmville.

Gone are the days of the subscription based MMORPG. MMORPGs have moved to the free-to-play model, allowing players to choose to pay for “perks,” like experience point boosters or nifty outfits and equipment as a means of monetizing these experiences. However, they are again quite different from the short-term burst play of a Farmville or a Cityville. They offer more complex gameplay experiences involving combat, crafting, and socialization, rather than clicking on buildings to collect rents every few hours or on fields to harvest crops. As much as a game like Cityville can own you, checking in on your city every few hours usually only involves about 10-15 minutes of “gameplay” at a time (assuming you count single clicks around a static map as gameplay). And indeed the chief problem with Farmville or Cityville from the perspective of most gamers is not so much that it is a time sink; it is that the time sink isn’t really much of a challenge, much fun, or much of a game at all.

Surely, if you want to actually play a game, finding short term gameplay experiences should and could be possible for you, someone that wants to play something that requires a little more challenge than waiting for crops to grow and occasionally reorganizing buildings.

All of which brings me to the free-to-play model emerging around not casual games, like Farmville, or persistent role playing and character building experiences, like Tera, but little hardcore free-to-play gaming experiences, like those offered by League of Legends or the still unreleased (though it is in open beta) Hearthstone. And interestingly, while these games may take more of a page from the sorts of games that gamers consider more like “real” games, involving complex systems, real skill in mastering those systems, and competitive play, I am reminded a great deal more of games like Cityville and Farmvilles in the way that they offer rewards to players that commit their time both regularly and often than I am of the older models of online gaming. Now, it’s all about bonuses, daily bonuses.

A match of League of Legends in standard mode, a game on Summoner’s Rift, will probably take 35 to 45 minutes to play, while the game also offers a shorter experience in some of its other modes, like the popular ARAM mode, which takes about 15 to 25 minutes a match. Hearthstone matches, which are slightly simpler, though not intellectually insubstantial, card-based combat experiences akin to Magic: The Gathering. These are notably faster affairs, clocking in at probably seven to 10 minutes per game.

These matches themselves are self contained, competitive experiences between players that have a clear beginning, middle, and end. That being said, there is still a persistent meta-game that exists outside these games that allows players to fine tune their in-game experience. Both games offer leveling systems and the ability to tweak play by earning points for winning matches or losing matches (though only League offers the chance to continue to earn points for loss, Hearthstone only rewards points to buy new booster packs and the like for wins). Points are used to buy runes that effect the in-game stats of characters played in later League of Legends matches or to buy additional characters to play with in the game. In the case of Hearthstone, you can still unlock some cards associated with that game’s various character classes by simply playing and leveling up (win or lose), but, again, the gold needed to get booster packs containing rare and unusual cards depend on your ability to win and win regularly.

The crucial element of these systems, though, that seem to me to result in a more persistent desire to play often and to maintain a schedule with these games are daily bonuses. In League, a bonus is awarded for one’s “First Win of the Day.” A substantial amount of points is awarded for such a win (about three times the base amount of a standard victory). The clock for the next “First Win of the Day” is only reset after the previous win. In other words, you can only maximize your daily win bonuses by winning on a schedule.

Likewise, Hearthstone features a “Daily Quest”. Ten points can be earned towards buying boosters packs (which cost 100 points each) or towards entry into “The Arena” (which costs 150 points, but offers the chance of earning both booster packs and some additional prizes of cards or more gold). One earns these mere 10 points for every three victories in Hearthstone matches. However, completing daily quest achievements garner four times that amount and usually require that the player to win several matches while playing certain classes of characters, encouraging experimenting with lots of the game’s systems, but also encouraging checking into the game on a regular basis to maximize the opportunity to earn more cards. Though unlike the daily win of League of Legends, daily quests can be stored in a quest log up to three at a time, meaning that an adherence to an absolute 24-hour cycle of play isn’t absolutely necessary. That being said, clearing out room in one’s quest log within that three day cycle so that new quests appear regularly still encourages a very regular style of play.

Like Farmville and Cityville these systems encourage commitment to efficient development of your virtual resources, commitments that place one’s time in the hands of the game’s systems and in tune with these game’s clocks. Play becomes defined by temporal goals, not necessarily by a personal sense of achievement or even by win-states. The win-state becomes not one defined by the game going on in the match, but by the meta-game of collection and development of resources in service to that game.

The goal of these experiences can easily become one of collection, not victory for its own sake, placing value on functionality and efficiency, not on the value of successful play, again, for its own sake.

It is nice to feel like you are getting something as a reward for one’s play, but within this model is some loss of the sense of a thing well done in and of itself. Play in these contexts has become defined as the act of listening to the ticking of a clock and answering to it. Getting something requires that you pay with something yourself by ceding some control of deciding when to spend your own “free” time.